When I visited New Zealand about a dozen years ago, pinot gris was starting to get popular. At the time, a lot of producers indicated they had started making it mostly because of market demand. (Pinot grigio was hugely popular at the time.) Unfortunately, many winemakers seemed to be floundering in their attempts, and most of the versions I tasted weren’t very good. Some were too alcoholic; others were too sweet; still others had too much oak.
Although there are still some missteps, I’m happy to report that most of the New Zealand pinot gris I’ve tried recently is much better.
Pinot gris is still a minor player in the New Zealand wine industry, accounting for just 6 percent of production. But plantings have been on the rise. Pinot gris is No. 4 among grape varieties in the country, at about 6,100 acres, up from about 3,400 in 2008. (There were just 42 acres in 1992 – less than one-fifth of the acreage planted then to reichensteiner! – but pinot gris planting started to accelerate in the late ‘90s.) Nearly half of the pinot gris acreage is in Marlborough on the South Island, the country’s leading production area and a place much better known for sauvignon blanc.
So why is New Zealand pinot gris improving so much? I put the question to Kim Crawford, winemaker at Loveblock Vintners (he’s no longer associated with the winery that bears his name).
“I think your overview of New Zealand pinot gris is correct,” he emailed in response to my observation about the previous state of the wines. “We have struggled historically with style, and I believe too much winemaker input (barrels, malolactic, etc.). I put this down to not having a champion as we did with Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc, which everyone followed along as it was and still is so successful.”
Crawford said vineyard practices are key. Loveblock uses organic practices in the vineyard that result in lower vigor. The vines, he said, also have “more fruit exposure, which tends to intensify the fruit flavors. Our site is fairly windy from a Marlborough perspective, and this reduces the berry size, giving us a high juice-to-skin ratio, again intensifying flavor.”
Crawford said the grapes “develop ripe flavor at lower Brix levels, meaning that I can make a lower-alcohol, dry style. Pinot gris is a very subtle wine. To me, it cannot take too much alcohol, nor barrel or malolactic.”
The 2018 Loveblock Vintners Pinot Gris ($22), from the Awatere Valley in Marlborough, is fresh, floral and spicy, with white fruit and a slight bitterness on the finish that’s pleasant and mouth-watering.
Brent Rawstron, who owns Waipapa Bay with his wife, Shirley, has been growing pinot gris in Marlborough for about six years and has been continually revising his vineyard practices. At first, he said, they were getting far too much crop, with too much shading on the fruit. So a couple of years ago, he said, the pruning was changed to get a smaller crop and less foliage in the fruit zone. Those changes, Rawstron said, helped achieve the style the couple wanted.
“We are trying to keep a backbone of crisp acidity in our pinot gris so as to give the wine structure but still retain the fruit flavors of pear and baked apple,” he said via email. “A slightly earlier harvest than most Marlborough pinot gris, combined with a cool fermentation with aromatic yeasts, helps this structure and the fruit flavors. We do not oak age.
“It is probably fair to say we have moved to a style of pinot gris that is more like a Marlborough sauvignon blanc: easy drinking, good acidity and persistent fruit flavors. Generally, our wines are made to be enjoyed with food; hence they tend to be less sweet.”
I found the 2019 Waipapa Bay Pinot Gris ($15) to be very fresh, with crisp apple fruit and a touch of spiciness.
Rawstron agreed that there has been a trend in New Zealand toward drier pinot gris. “Having said that,” he added, “many New Zealand pinot gris are still quite sweet, due to late harvesting, and others have been oak-aged.” He noted regional variations and said North Island versions are often oak-aged and higher in alcohol, while South Island wines tend to have crisper acidity and slightly lower alcohol.
The wines I’ve tasted lately have all been from the South Island. The 2016 Astrolabe Pinot Gris ($22) from Marlborough is racy and a little spicy, with fresh citrus flavors. (A newer vintage has started to show up in stores.) And the 2017 Mt. Beautiful Pinot Gris ($19), from North Canterbury, outside Christchurch, displays spicy white fruit and a hint of almond paste.